Eighth-grader Heman Bekele, 14, is the 2023 winner of 3M's Young Scientist Challenge.
He won $25,000 for his invention, which is a cost-effective way of treating skin cancer — with soap.
The theory behind the soap is that it works by mobilizing the body's immune system.
Extracurriculars for this Virginia middle schooler include the science fair, computer science, and treating cancer.
With the prize funds, Bekele told Insider he hopes to move his soap through the FDA approval process, bringing his product to market as an affordable treatment for a disease that kills nearly 8,000 Americans a year.
After that, Bekele has ambitions to expand his work in the nonprofit space in order to help as many people as possible. He looks forward to moving from just focusing on cancer to topics like DNA and electrical engineering.
"I'm looking for new fields to start learning more about, because I've almost checked off oncology on my list," he said.
How does the soap work?
One way doctors try to treat skin cancer is by ramping up our body's natural immune response against cancer cells.
Bekele's soap operates on that theory, trying to reinvigorate the body's defenses.
The soap contains certain molecules that stimulate the immune system, so when someone uses it, it can revive immune cells in the skin so they're able to fight the melanoma.
Why it's needed
When Bekele was researching different topics for the competition, it struck him that though skin cancer is a treatable disease, many people can't afford those treatments.
"The issue there is that it really isn't affordable or accessible at all," he said.
Individual costs vary widely, but a 2014 study estimated that the annual cost of melanoma treatments in the US was $8.1 billion. Bekele estimated that it would cost less than $10 to make 20 bars of his soap.
He said the affordability of his product was one of the biggest motivations behind his idea. Bekele landed on soap because it's cost effective, accessible, and easy for people to trust.
He still has a lot of hurdles left to jump, but Bekele is looking forward to the challenge.
"There's definitely still a lot more for me to learn, and I'm really excited to see where all that takes me," he said.
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